Toronto non-profit bringing virtual reality to seniors for chance to relive memories

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WATCH ABOVE: The pandemic has exacerbated feelings of loneliness and depression for many, especially for people who rely on social interaction like the elderly or those living with Alzheimer’s. A non-profit created during COVID-19 wants to address this by raising funds for personalized virtual reality therapy. Miranda Anthistle has the details. – Jan 21, 2021

A non-profit launched by a Toronto palliative care physician and a music producer aim to give seniors a chance to relive their fondest memories while also improving their health and well-being through personalized virtual reality therapy.

“It improves both physical and psychology symptoms,” explained Dr. Ginah Kim, co-founder of Express Service Society.

“A big part of improving people’s quality of life is reminding them of their identity, which is often lost because of illness.”

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated feelings of loneliness and depression for many, especially those who are in hospital or live in a long-term care facility.

For Kim, the COVID-19 visiting restrictions have led to her seeing unprecedented distress levels in her patients. All of this has further highlighted the pressing need for better access to personalized virtual reality therapy.

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“It restores personhood and gives dignity back,” she said.

Read more: Ontario long-term care residents describe devastating impact of isolation during COVID-19 pandemic

Kim said personalized VR therapy reminds users of their life accomplishments and valued relationships by allowing them to spend time with family in other countries, walk around their hometown, attend their child’s wedding or re-visit the location where they got married.

She found when the VR experience is more personal, there’s more improvement seen in a patient’s overall well-being.

For each different social cause Express Service Society raises money for, it will create a different good to sell. The non-profit has launched a streetwear clothing line for its inaugural season, paying homage to seniors — the original athleisure wearers.

“There’s a little bit of a transcendence idea in the spirit of this campaign and to unite the older generations with the younger generations,” said creative director and co-founder Didier Tovel.

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One hundred per cent of Express Service Society’s proceeds will go directly to advance the research and funding for personalized virtual reality therapy.

“Why not buy clothes you love while also doing something good for society?” said Tovel, who has worked with a number of different creatives on the streetwear line who have donated their time and expertise.

Personalized VR therapy is very costly and not easily accessible. For Tom and Jean Cooper, it’s a treatment they hope to one day be able to use. Tom was diagnosed with young-onset Alzheimer’s seven years ago before the age of 60.

“It was earthshattering to say the least,” said Jean, adding the pandemic has made the situation even more difficult.

Read more: University of Alberta med students bring therapeutic art to isolated seniors

“If anyone needs to get out of their heads, it’s people living with Alzheimer’s. VR therapy might give them that sense of socializing, or to have that sense of being out when you’re stuck in,” said Jean, who takes care of Tom.

She’s been researching VR therapy for him and said the benefits would be a Godsend.

“It can give him a visualization other than the couch. It would be good for Tom. Anything to keep his mind active,” Jean said.

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Personalized VR therapy also provides families with an opportunity to become involved in their loved one’s care, allowing them to provide a meaningful experience.

Express Service Society’s goal is to raise $100,000 this season to put towards research and fundraising for the very personal therapy, aiming to make that trip down memory lane for Tom and others a reality.

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